Tokugawa admiral and Meiji statesman

Enomoto Takeaki (榎本武揚, 1836-1908) was born in Edo into a family of gokenin, direct vassals of the Tokugawa shogun, and attended the prestigious Shōheikō (昌平校と藩学 Shōheizaka School and Domain Studies) academy. In 1853, he went to study rangaku (蘭学, “Dutch studies”, Western sciences brought to Japan through Dutch merchants) in Nagasaki. In 1856, he attended the Nagasaki Naval Training Center (長崎海軍伝習所 Nagasaki kaigun denshū-jo), a training facility established by the shogunate in 1855, with mainly Dutch instructors, which in 1859 was moved to Tsukiji in Edo, as the bakufu had grown reluctant to train samurai from domains opposed to the shogunate in modern naval technology.

In 1862, he was dispatched to the Netherlands, where he studied maritime sciences and became fluent in Dutch and English. One of his instructors was Johannes Lydius Catherinus Pompe van Meerdervort (1829-1908), who had been invited by the Tokugawa shogunate to teach medicine at the naval training school in Nagasaki. He returned to the Netherlands in 1862, accompanying Enomoto, who later persuaded Pompe to act as his adviser in St. Petersburg from 1875 to 1877. In Europe, Enomoto also supervised the construction of a modern warship ordered by the shogunate.

Enomoto returned to Japan in 1867, where he was promoted vice commander-in-chief of the navy (海軍副総裁 kaigun fukusosai) and bestowed the courtesy title of Izumi-no-kami (和泉守). When Katsu Kaishū surrendered Edo to the forces of Saigō Takamori in May 1868 during the Boshin War (戊辰戦争 boshin sensō), Enomoto refused to hand over the entire naval fleet of the shogunate. He escaped from Edo with eight steam warships and a few French military advisers under Lieutenant Jules Brunet and headed north to support the Northern Alliance (奥羽越列藩同盟 ōuetsu reppan dōmei). The alliance consisted of 31 domains as well as the domains of Aizu and Shōnai, which were not formal members, but resisted the armies of the Satchō Alliance (mainly from the domains of Satsuma and Chōshū). Though superior in number, the forces of the Northern Alliance disintegrated in the wake of Aizu’s fall in October 1868, forcing Enomoto and his fleet to leave Sendai for Hokkaidō , where he established the only republic on Japanese soil to this day, the Republic of Ezo.

The Republic of Ezo and Jules Brunet

After the defeat of the shogunate and the Northern Alliance in 1868, Enomoto fled to Hokkaidō , then known as Ezo, with the remnants of his forces and several French military advisers. In 1867, French Emperor Napoleon III had sent a military mission to Japan to modernise the army of the bakufu. The officers trained the Shogunate’s army for about a year. After the fall of the Shogunate and the Meiji Restoration, the French mission was ordered to leave Japan by imperial decree. Lieutenant Jules Brunet and other members of the mission decided to stay in Japan to support the forces loyal to the shogunate. Brunet resigned from the French army and explained in a letter to Napoleon III that by assisting his former students and the Party of the North, he would be supporting the Japanese party more favourable to France.

Enomoto established the Republic of Ezo (蝦夷共和国 Ezo Kyōwakoku) modelled on the United States and became its first and only president (総裁 sōsai). The new government resided in the star-shaped fortress of Goryōkaku in Hakodate. In the winter of 1868/69, Enomoto and Brunet not only reorganised the troops and prepared for the defence of Hakodate but laid the foundations of a new state. Finally, in April 1869 Imperial forces consisting of 7,000 troops landed in Hakodate and soon surrounded the fortress, held by only 800 men. On June 27, 1869, Enomoto surrendered to Kuroda Kiyotaka on the condition that he alone be held responsible. Kuroda was so impressed with Enomoto’s tenacity and selflessness that he showed mercy and spared him from execution.

Officially wanted by the Meiji government, Brunet and his aides meanwhile managed to escape on a French warship. Brunet was never punished for his actions during the Boshin War . On the contrary, through the influence of Admiral Enomoto, the Imperial government awarded him Japanese medals in 1881 and 1885. Brunet rose through the ranks and eventually became Chief of Staff. He died in 1911.

Enomoto was sentenced to three years in prison, then received a special pardon in 1872, mainly at the insistence of Kuroda, who recognised his potentials and was appointed secretary-general of the Hokkaidō Development Commission (開拓使 Kaitakushi). In 1874, he became vice-admiral in the Imperial Japanese Navy; in the following year, he was sent to Russia as a plenipotentiary minister to try to resolve the Sakhalin issue, concluding the Treaty of Saint Petersburg (樺太・千島交換条約 Karafuto-chishima kōkan jōyaku) between the Empire of Russia and the Empire of Japan on May 7, 1875, in which Japan ceded Sakhalin to Russia in exchange for the Kuril Islands (千島列島 chishima rettō). In 1880, he was appointed Minister of the Navy (海軍卿 Kaigunshō) but suffered from the resentment of members of the former Satsuma domain, who regarded naval affairs as their preserve. In 1882, he became ambassador to China and assumed some ministerial portfolios: education, communications, foreign affairs, agriculture, and commerce. In 1887, he was raised to the peerage (子爵 shishaku, viscount) under the Meiji kazoku (華族) system and appointed a member of the Imperial Privy Council (枢密院 sūmitsu-in) in 1890. Enomoto rose to be one of the highest-ranking former Tokugawa retainers, unquestionably an exception in the Meiji era, when most political and military top positions were held by statesmen from Chōshū and Satsuma.

Enomoto strongly promoted Japanese emigration to Latin America and the Pacific region and founded the Department of Agriculture, Ikueiko School, Tokugawa Ikuei-Kai Foundation (徳川育英会育英黌農業科), which later became the Tokyo University of Agriculture (東京農業大学 Tōkyō nōgyō daigaku), also known as Nōdai (農大) or Tōkyō nōdai (東京農大). Enomoto resigned in 1897, in protest against the Ashio Copper Mines Incident (足尾銅山鉱毒事件 Ashio dōzan kōdoku jiken), where, in 1896, mining operations resulted in massive pollution of the Tone and the Watarase rivers. Both rivers irrigated a large part of the Northern Kantō plain, resulting in an agricultural disaster. Due to the loud protests of local peasants, the affair was brought before the Diet. Enomoto was the only major government figure to take a stand on corporate accountability for environmental pollution.

An interesting anecdote depicting Enomoto’s personality is recounted by Shiba Gorō in his autobiography entitled Remembering Aizu. Shiba was born into a samurai family from the Aizu domain, a staunch supporter of the Tokugawa and as such a self-declared archenemy of the Satsuma-Chōshū alliance. Gorō was fortunate enough to be admitted to the Army Cadet School (陸軍幼年学校 Rikugun Yōnen Gakkō). He described his student days in Tokyo and his admiration for Enomoto:

We also combed the shops for portraits of Napoleon, Washington, Enomoto Takeaki, and other great men we admired. Of course, I refused to touch a portrait of anyone from Chōshū or Satsuma. One of my heroes, Enomoto Takeaki, had just returned from Russia. I made up my mind to visit him. A reckless idea, to be sure, but I was completely earnest at the time. I went to his home in Kudanshita Imagawakōji but was turned away at the door. I returned to his house for three Sundays running and was refused each time. I persisted, however, and at last, his patience doubtless worn thin, Enomoto agreed to see me. He was much fiercer than I had imagined from his photograph.

“What do you want?” he demanded.

“Sir, I realise I am still young but permit me to say that I have long admired you and think you are the greatest person alive in Japan. Would you have some advice for me?”

“First, build up your physical strength. Second, be honourable and fair. Third, acquire learning. That’s all.”

He stood up to leave the room. “In future, I’ll see you if I’m free. Just identify yourself at the door as Shiba Gorō from the Army Cadet School.”

Enomoto was extremely brusque, and perhaps because of my earlier experiences, I still took offence at the tiniest slight. I felt he had been barely able to tolerate me – an impudent brat – and never went back.

Enomoto died in 1908 at the age of 72. He is buried at Kisshō-ji (吉祥寺) temple in Bunkyō-ku, Tōkyō.

Enomoto Takeaki Gallery:

Enomoto Takeagi

Admiral Takeaki Enomoto (榎本武揚, 1836-1908)

Enomoto Takeagi

The young Enomoto as a samurai

Enomoto Takeagi

The young Takeaki

Enomoto Takeagi

Enomoto in the Republic of Ezo (1868/69)

Enomoto Takeagi

Enomoto in Meiji uniform

Enomoto Takeagi

Statue of Enomoto Takeaki in Tōkyō

Jules Brunet

Jules Brunet and other French military advisers with their Japanese allies in Hokkaido

Republic of Ezo

The flag of the Republic of Ezo (credit)


  • Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric, Japan Encyclopedia, Harvard University Press 2005
  • Totman, Conrad D., The Collapse of the Tokugawa Bakufu, 1862-1868, University of Hawaii Press 1980
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